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The Exorcism of Emily Rose
Reviewed by Gary Mitchel, © 2005

Format: Movie
By:   Scott Derrickson (director)
Genre:   Horror
Released:   September 9, 2005
Review Date:   September 20, 2005
Audience Rating:   Rated PG-13
RevSF Rating:   6/10 (What Is This?)

"I have to tell Emily’s story. Nothing else matters." — Father Moore

It’s always a bit strange when a movie opens with the “based on a true story” text, and yet at the end of the credits it also has the “no relation to actual person or events” tag. You’re not sure which to believe.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose is all about belief. Do you believe in demons? Do you believe that people can be possessed? Do you believe that the supernatural can always be rationally explained away? Do you believe that someone should be held accountable by secular law if actions driven by faith leads to death?

When the movie opens, we follow a medical examiner to the home of the Roses, where daughter Emily (Jennifer “White Chicks” Carpenter) has died horribly in what appears to be an exorcism gone wrong. Father Moore (Tom “Batman Begins” Wilkinson), who performed the rite, is arrested and charged with negligent homicide. The local diocese hires defense lawyer Erin Bruner (Laura “The Truman Show” Linney) to defend Father Moore and keep the Church from looking bad. The potential conflict between those missions provides part of the drama of the movie.

It doesn’t help that Erin, an agnostic who’s never really thought about God, has personal demons of her own. She’s clawing her way back to the top of the defense game. It’s not really spelled out, but she had apparently lost her reputation and only her recent successful defense of an alleged murderer has her star on the rise again. Her boss says if she can win an acquittal for Father Moore, she’ll make partner at the firm. The only catch: She can’t let Father Moore testify. Guess what Father Moore wants to do more than anything else.

Since we know at the beginning of the movie that Emily is dead, the ensuing trial serves as a framing device to tell us what exactly happened. We hear from her mother and father that she was a good, devout girl who just won a scholarship to a university to study . . . something that’s not really explained. There she met a good boy named Jason (Joshua “Undressed” Close), and while they weren't a couple, they were good friends. It’s at the university that Emily either develops psychotic epilepsy or is possessed by demons.

The events are shown to us first from Emily’s point of view or as described by the eyewitnesses, then again as the prosecutor lays out rational explanations for what seemed to be supernatural events. It’s a pretty effective technique, and gives the movie a feeling like The X-Files crossed with Law and Order. However, the fact that we already know Emily died tends to suck most of the scares out the flashbacks. Instead of being afraid for Emily, you spend most of the movie waiting for the mystery of “was she or wasn’t she” to be resolved.

Most of the real scares come from the fact that, according to Father Moore, by taking this case Erin has opened herself up to demonic attack. Sure enough, she starts hearing and seeing things at three a.m. (the demonic witching hour, also according to Father Moore). She also has a crisis of faith in her job when something you were kind of expecting happens with an old client of hers. She then has to decide whether to let Father Moore testify — whether to follow his wishes as the defendant or those of her boss and the diocese.

Most of the effects are well done, and are mostly subtle. Demonic faces appear in the clouds and in fog on windowpanes. Emily’s eyes go all black and spooky, and her visions are pretty intense.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose raises a lot of questions about faith and the supernatural, and only mildly sensationalizes the story. It’s fairly quiet and moody, with the most intense scenes being the flashback of the exorcism itself. It manages to walk the fine line of serious courtroom drama and supernatural thriller. The main tension comes from the trial, and you spend most of the movie waiting to see the verdict. Will the jury believe that Emily was possessed? Will they send Father Moore to jail for ten years?

It's is a good movie, with solid performances and a few great scenes. I love that it stays ambiguous on the whole matter of spirituality. However, it never really rises above the level of interesting. It plays like and has the feeling of a TV movie, not a really great film. It felt like something was missing. I'd say wait for DVD or a showing on HBO, as I think it will be much more effective on the small screen.

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